Proficiency Based Grade Reporting

Guys, can I just tell you how much I LOVE my new school district? I have the absolute freedom to teach however I want and have colleagues that also teach with comprehensible input (CI) or are interested in learning more about it so they can implement CI techniques into their classrooms. Now our totally awesome superintendent has given our department freedom to blow up our grade reporting systems and completely reinvent them, about which I am SO excited!

Currently the district uses a traditional A, B, C reporting system for the middle school (we are a K-8 district). This creates an issue because an A in my class might be different than an A in another class. In addition, some teachers in our department consistently give homework. In that class, therefore, a student may have a good grade because she does all the homework and a student with a poor grade may never do homework and end up with multiple zeroes, which brings his grade down. In this case, the grade is not at all based on their ability in the language but on work habits. In contrast, I give almost no homework, so the majority of students in my class have good grades that are based more on their language ability than their work habits. In a nutshell, we lack consistency as a department when it comes to grading, specifically because a letter grade can mean very different things based on whose class a student happens to be enrolled in.

At the elementary level, the second language teachers there assess each student on four criteria on a 1-4 scale. Their criteria include participation, behavior, cultural competence, and language ability. The teachers have over 200 students apiece and they also have to give comments, so this system is very cumbersome for them. So while consistent grading is the goal of the middle school grading practices, at the elementary level it is about creating a system that is less cumbersome for them.

For the middle school, we have decided to create a system based on ACTFL Proficiency Standards, which you can access here if you are not familiar with them. We have five categories: Interpretive Listening, Interpretive Reading, Presentational Writing, Interpersonal Speaking, and Interpersonal Writing. The first three we plan to assess formally and the last two we will assess informally. We will use ACTFL terminology (Novice Low, Novice Mid, etc.) for all categories. We will also report a grade (Not yet, Emerging, Meets, Exceeds) for Active Engagement. So we will have six categories to assess all together. At first I was a little wary of having to report so many different categories, but a colleague pointed out that it really isn’t all that much since there’s no grade calculation involved. Moreover, some students may not progress from quarter to quarter, so we can just copy and paste from one quarter to the next. And finally, if we can’t assess in a certain category, we may leave it blank or define it as being “Not Yet Observable.”

For the elementary school, we have reduced their four categories to two: Active Engagement and Interpretive Listening. We will use the same terminology for Active Engagement at the elementary school that we will use at the middle school but decided as a group not to use ACTFL Proficiency Standards terminology with the elementary students because we do not want parents and students to feel that they are doing poorly in the class when they see the term “Novice Low,” even though, due to the limited time our elementary teachers have, that is where they are SUPPOSED to be, at least at first. Instead, we will use the same category names for Active Listening at the elementary school that we will use for Active Engagement. Then if teachers want to they can keep their own personal records with ACTFL terminology if they desire.

Let me say a few words about that Active Engagement category. This is absolutely NOT a participation grade, for two main reasons. First of all, teaching with CI is all about input and not about output (especially not the forced kind). Second, grading participation is unfair to quiet, reserved students who may be listening and doing everything they need to do in order to be successful in class but will most likely never raise their hand to speak. Our Active Engagement have not been finalized jet, but will most likely be based on the following criteria listen below.

1. Listening with the intent to understand

2. Signaling to the teacher when something is not understood

3. No side conversations or blurting out in English

4. Good posture and eye contact with the teacher

5. A positive, respectful attitude

So now that we have decided to use a proficiency-based grading system, we now have to start testing for proficiency. Specifically, we as a department will have to make sure that we know how to assess writing, reading, listening, and speaking effectively so we can say something like, “This is a Novice Mid writing sample” or “Based on the number of questions this student answered correctly on this assessment, she is at an Intermediate Mid level for Interpretive Reading.” So our department will be researching this and seeking out professional development on this topic. Maybe in the future it will become one of my blog posts! You all will just have to wait and see.

Using E-Pals to Increase Student Engagement and Fulfill All Five C’s

Last December, an English teacher in France posted in the French teacher comprehensible input (CI) group on Facebook that she was looking for a French class in the United States to set up an e-pal exchange with (I’m sure many of you know the term “pen pal.” I had quite a few when I was a young teen. These days the students communicate through email, hence the term “e-pal.”). My students were roughly the same age as hers so I set up an exchange with her. We alternate between writing in French and writing in English so that both our students can practice their target language (TL).

For the past two months, I have been conducting Special Person interviews in my class. Here is the post I just wrote about that. As a result, my students have been receiving a steady diet of CI. Each student is interviewed about their family, birthday, likes, and fears. So after I matched each French student with one of my students based on questionnaires the teacher in France sent me, I had my students write an introductory letter to their pen pal. Thanks to the Special Person interviews we have been doing, my students had very little difficulty writing about six to ten sentences about themselves with no supports whatsoever in TEN MINUTES!

The teacher in France sent me a letter with some information about her town and her students. She also sent me the link to her school’s web page, and that is when I had a GREAT idea. Why not take the basic French 1 topics that I am planning to talk about anyway, such as geography of France, weather, school, food, and hobbies and present them while using what we learning about the lives of our new e-pals as a real-world context? That is exactly what I did, and here is how I hit all those topics.

1. Geography of France. Our e-pals live in a town in southwestern France. I projected a map of France from Google Maps in class and used the opportunity to point out some of the geographical features of France in general such as mountains, big cities, and bordering countries. Then I could ask questions like, Classe, nos amis habitent près de Suisse (Class, do our friends live near Switzerland)? Il y a des montagnes près de leur ville (Are there mountains near their town)This particular town is near the Garonne River, so I showed them where it was on the map and talked a bit also about some of the other rivers in France. This helped my students start to acquire words like mountains, rivers, country, near, far, next to, east, south, west…and so on. You get the idea.

Once I was done with the geographic map, I switched Google Maps to the satellite view and zoomed in so students could get a glimpse of the center of town and the school our e-pals attend. Guys, my kids went CRAZY when they saw that they could virtually see what their e-pals’ town and school look like! They were so excited! I thought their heads were going to explode! For more information on using Google Maps in your language class, read this awesome post from la Maestra Loca, Annabelle Allen.

2. Weather. Since class began I have been asking them questions about the weather each day. Talking about the weather in general can get a bit monotonous, but now that my students and I are able to compare weather in our region with weather in our e-pals’ region, it has gotten a bit more interesting. A real world connection makes all that vocabulary and language structure real, relevant, and a lot more interesting than it is when talking in the hypothetical.

We use the Internet to check and compare our daily and seasonal weather with theirs. I can ask questions like, Ici il pleut. Il pleut là-bas (It’s raining here. Is it raining there?)? I only use French weather sites (Look ACTFL, an authentic resource!). These sites are very visual, usually with just a symbol and a temperature in Celsius. I don’t mind the lack of weather vocabulary, however, because I know my students won’t get bogged down by too much unfamiliar language. They only need to concentrate on the pictures. I also get an opportunity to talk about French usage of the metric system and, since French weather sites also give the weather for the overseas départements of France, I have the chance to add in a little more geography as we talk about the weather in places like Mayotte, Guadeloupe, and French Polynesia.

3. School. I plan to write the teacher in France and ask her if she will send us a copy of what a typical school day looks like for her students, because I would like the opportunity to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs (Many typical French school schedules are available online, so if need be, I can use a generic one until I get a real one from France). I plan to project the schedule and use the target language (TL) to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs. A school schedule comparison is a great opportunity to reinforce time expressions and names of school subjects. Then from there I can personalize the conversation by asking students in French to tell me their favorite classes, and ultimately they will be able to ask their e-pals about their favorites as well.

4. Food. The school our e-pals attend posts its weekly lunch menu online (Another authentic resource! Yay!). This is an amazing document to use when we are talking about food. I project the weekly menu and we talk about what we would eat each day if we were students there (And yes, even though this is a first-year class, I have NO PROBLEM teaching them a conditional form. I NEVER shelter grammar) and compare it to our own lunch menu. The importance of eating healthy food is such an important part of French culture, which is something my students quickly realize when they compare the two menus side by side.

5. Hobbies. One of the questions on our Special Person interviews was about what my students like to do in their spare time. As a result, my students can talk pretty easily about activities that they like or don’t like to do. My class is a nice mix of musicians, jocks, gamers, and book nerds, so my students have acquired about 15-20 different words they can use to express things they like to do. It has been interesting to compare our favorite activities with the favorite activities of our e-pals so that we can compare and contrast and add even more expressions to our internal language systems based on what our e-pals like to do.

Guys my students are SO engaged in class these days, because everything we are doing we can relate back to a real person. My principal came to observe me and she was very impressed by how excited my students were and the fact that they had a real-world connection to their language study. This project has been great for my professional evaluations too, because I hit ALL FIVE ACTFL WORLD READINESS STANDARDS!

If you’re interested in getting your students e-pals, let me warn you about being careful to protect your students’ privacy. I DO NOT allow my students to give their home address, email address, social media profile name, or phone number to their e-pals. The only means of communication for them is through me, and the teacher in France does the same thing. Once our students have written each other more frequently, the teacher in France and I may talk about allowing our students to exchange private contact information so they can communicate directly. I will most likely send out permission slip forms to parents to make sure that they feel comfortable with that. In this day and age, you just can’t be too careful!

This e-pals project is one of the best activities I have ever done in a second language class! And in our Internet world, connecting with a teacher in a foreign country and setting up an exchange is relatively easy. I urge you to give it a try, no matter what language you teach!



Two Great Activities Courtesy of Bryce Hedstrom

I LOVE Bryce Hedstrom. To be more specific, I love the activities that he has created and written about on his blog. If you want to teach successfully with comprehensible input, (CI), check out his amazing resources!  Here are two activities that I stole from him that I suggest you try, if you can, and my thoughts about them.

1. Password. This is an activity where students cannot enter the classroom until they have said a password, which is a chosen expression in the target language (TL). I post the password outside my classroom for students to see and they say that expression before I allow them into the room.

This activity helps students acquire some practical expressions in the target language that I might not have the time to teach them otherwise. It is really easy to implement if you have your own classroom or have trained your students not to enter the classroom until you arrive.

In my French class, some of my passwords this year so far have been: Je n’ai pas de crayon (I don’t have a pencil), Je ne comprends pas (I don’t understand), and C’est dingue ! (That’s crazy!).

Having a class password is a sneaky way to provide input to your students without having to do much planning. It is SO EASY!!! But I do recommend that, while you are using a certain password, you work it into something else you are doing in class, otherwise you run the risk that students will just parrot the expression back to you without connecting any meaning to the expression.

2. Special Person Interviews. This is an activity in class where a student is interviewed in the TL in front of the class. Special Person interviews are great because they provide a tremendous amount of input and give your students a chance to be the center of attention. Bryce may conduct his Special Person interviews a little differently than I do. I suggest that you visit his website for his take on it. For what it’s worth, I’ve described what I do in my classes here. I have described what I do below.

a. Questionnaire. I have students fill out a questionnaire about themselves in the TL. It is important to note that I translate all my questions into English, as my goal is for all students to fill out the questionnaire with as little frustration as possible. Below is a questionnaire that I used for my Spanish 3 class last year.


b. PowerPoint. I created a PowerPoint with one of the questions from my questionnaire on each slide, along with the language needed to answer that question in the first and third person. I project this PowerPoint during each student interview. Below is the PowerPoint I used for Spanish 3 last year.


c. Student Interview. I interview each student in front of the class. To keep the rest of the class engaged, I have one student draw a picture based on what the interviewed student says. I usually ask another student to be the computer operator who advances the PowerPoint slides. This gives me freedom to walk around the room and helps engage the students.

Once I have done a few interviews, I can then compare them all as I interview. So if one of my students says that her birthday is in December, I can then ask the class if anyone else has a birthday in December. This helps keep students engaged and provides more CI.

At lower levels, students may have trouble expressing themselves in the TL. When I first started doing Special Person interviews, I had many students in lower level classes who wrote one or two words in the TL on their questionnaires but them felt the need to elaborate during their interviews in English. I recommend that you don’t let this happen by declaring ahead of time that blurting out in extended English during the interview is NOT acceptable. If you have time, you could avoid this by reviewing the questionnaires and conferencing with students about any of their responses that you don’t understand or for which you need an explanation. It might be a good chance to provide some personalized CI, but I have never had time to do this.

d. Assessment. After 3 or 4 interviews, I type up a worksheet reviewing information that we have learned about our interviewed students. I describe an interviewed student anonymously and then students have to say which interviewed student I am describing. This review worksheet is yet another opportunity for me to provide CI. Here is an example of some of the sentences on my French 1 review sheet (If you don’t speak French, the sentences below are asking students to name which student said s/he had a dog, who said his/her favorite show was Riverdale, and similar questions).


Once we have reviewed the worksheet, I give a quiz. On the quiz, the students have to write five sentences describing each interviewed student. For the first few times I give them a quiz like this, I include a word bank. I grade my students on the quality of sentences they write (very liberally, since I am more about input than output) and about accuracy of information (Did they say Paul has a brother when he really has a sister?). Some of my students have known each other for quite a few years, and these interviews are very high interest, so almost all of my students have no problem at all recalling five bits of information about our interviewed students.

I am sure that other teachers who do personal interviews don’t assess students on information they learned about their classmates, but I feel that I need to hold my students accountable for at least some of the information they learn about their classmates so that I can be sure that they will pay attention during the interviews. Since my students have known each other for many years, writing five sentences about another student is really not that hard for them.

These are two awesome activities that I suggest you try in your class. Incidentally, just the other day I asked my first-year students to write a paragraph about themselves as a free write activity. Besides Special Person assessments, my students have done very little writing in class. But after listening to so many classmates talk about themselves during Special Person interviews, almost all my students had no problem writing at least a half page about themselves with no supports in a span of only ten minutes!

Thank you, Bryce Hedstrom, for these wonderful activities! I am forever in your debt!

My Thoughts on Thematic Units

I belong to a number of teaching groups on Facebook and I come across a lot of posts that are similar to these:

Does anyone have a good Movie Talk for a unit about shopping?

Does anyone have any good stories to use to talk about sports? Preferably one with command forms?

Posts like this make me cringe. Guys, I am so over planning units based on a theme with a body of knowledge that I need to cover, and the reason why is pretty simple. Teachers who “do” a unit on a specific theme, like eating out in a restaurant or protecting the environment or whatever, are almost always just talking about these themes to “cover” vocabulary expressions and grammatical structures about that theme and are hardly ever really communicating with their students about the topic. And when this happens, little language acquisition is actually taking place. If I try to steer a conversation to make sure that I cover a certain group of vocabulary words or grammatical structures, my kids will very quickly realize that my main objective is to “cover” those vocabulary words or grammatical structures. They will quickly tune me out, because the actual message is not important.

And come on, guys, you have to agree that when you attempt to talk about a certain theme while making sure that you “cover” certain structures, the sentences you end up saying are artificial and often don’t resemble normal conversations. Here, just off the top of my head, is a list of questions that I have asked in a language class that I have never, ever said in a real conversation.

Do you wear pants in the summer when it’s hot out?

Do you use a spoon when you eat ice cream?

Do you get dressed for school before or after you eat breakfast?

Do you reuse or recycle to help the environment?

In case you’re interested, the answer to every one of these questions is the same. Who cares? Not my students.

My goal in my classroom is to talk with my students in a way that feels like a natural, normal conversation. I want them so caught up in what I am saying that they don’t even realize that they are acquiring language. When I think about what to talk about with my students, I choose things that I think my students will find interesting. In addition, I allow the conversation to develop naturally. And while I limit the number of new vocabulary expressions I use with my students, I use whatever grammar I need to make my message comprehensible and interesting. Subjunctive in first year? Yes, if it’s needed. Do I teach the word for sweater without teaching twenty other clothing words? Yes, if what I need to do is tell a student who is cold to put on a sweater or tell one who is hot to take off a sweater. Have I taught all numbers? No, not yet. I have covered 1-31 and the number 2018 because we need them to tell the date. I have taught my French students 55 because it is my favorite number, and I have taught my Spanish students the number 87 because that is how old I tell them that I am.

So I imagine the question you are asking yourself is, “Well, if she doesn’t do thematic units, what does she do?” The short answer is that I do whatever I think my students will find interesting that I can talk about with compelling, comprehensible input. Here is a short list of items that fit this criteria.

  1. Movie Talks. I find a short, compelling video clip, preferably one with a twist at the end, and I talk about it with my students. Sometimes I have additional activities that I do along with the video (If you don’t know how to “do” a Movie Talk, you can read this post and this post).
  2. Calendar Talks. At the beginning of each class, we talk about what is going on that day. We talk about the weather, but mainly only as a springboard to talk about other things. For example, one day last April when it was raining for the tenth or eleventh day in a row I used our weather talk to lament that it had been raining for over a week straight. I got lots of past tense practice by saying, “Saturday it rained,” followed by “Sunday it rained,” and so on. This is when I also talk about any upcoming events, like birthdays or holidays or school functions, and any other event my students might want to mention, such as if they are taking a trip anywhere or playing in an important championship game. I posted recently about using this online calendar as a visual for my Calendar Talks, which my students liked.
  3. Student Interviews.Bryce Hedstrom blogged about this activity here. Basically it involves the teacher interviewing students about themselves in the target language. It is a great activity to use to acquire personal information. I have been doing student interviews for the past few months (I only see my students 3 days a week, so it has taken a while to get through the whole class), but because of this practice my students have acquired language they need to talk about their family, pets, favorite activities, favorite foods, and more.
  4. Personal Anecdotes. My students love it when I tell them stories about my life and my family, and this is one way that I give my students a lot of exposure to the past tense. Sometimes I show my students pictures from my weekend on Monday mornings, which gives us the opportunity to use the past tense. In other instances, I tell my students about interesting events that have happened in my life recently. For example, last year I lost my wedding ring. This turned into a great lesson in class during which I told them that I had lost it, where I looked for it, where it could possibly be, and where I ultimately found it (although I found it a week before I told my class that I had found it, because our conversation about the missing ring was so compelling).

Once I moved away from doing thematic units, two things happened. First of all, I felt liberated. Forcing myself to “cover” a set list of words or grammar structures was making me feel trapped. I didn’t want to have those artificial conversations to make sure that I used all the vocabulary and grammar structures in the unit. Second, student interest increased when we started talking in a more natural way about things they really cared about, which, based on data from their reading quizzes and writing samples, is helping them acquire language. My students are happier and so am I.

The January Blossom

If you are new to teaching with comprehensible input (CI), at first it can feel frustrating, because it is hard to tell if your students are making any progress in acquiring the language. This is especially true if, like me, you don’t force output (and you absolutely should not. Encourage, yes, but force, no), because if students aren’t producing, it may seem that you have no evidence that they are acquiring language. Teachers who don’t have a lot of confidence in their abilities may get so frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress that they may give up and go back to traditional methods (yes, I was guilty of this as a novice CI teacher).

But those who stick with teaching with CI might notice that something magical happens right around the mid-year mark. All of a sudden, students start spontaneously producing language, which demonstrates that they have been quietly acquiring language all along. A colleague of mine refers to it as the “January Blossom,” and it can be pretty amazing to witness. This week I have noticed the blossom in two of my classes.

Students in my seventh grade French class recently were paired with pen pals in France, and yesterday they all sat down to write letters to their new friends in French. This is the first time I have asked my students to do any sort of free writing in class, and they knocked it out of the park. Every student, even the weakest of the group, was able to write down anywhere between two and four sentences about themselves in about five minutes with absolutely no help from me. Some of my stronger students wrote even more. Why was this possible? Because we have been doing Special Person interviews now for the past few months. During these interviews, I ask a series of questions about the student’s family, hobbies, and favorite things. In a class of seventeen students, my students have heard others answer questions about themselves sixteen different times. Thanks to the power of compelling, comprehensible input, my students can communicate about themselves on a variety of topics with a great deal of accuracy. I was very impressed by their abilities and, more importantly, they were proud of their progress as well.

My eighth grade students and I have started talking about the 2018 Winter Olympics in class, which I introduced to them with a PowerPoint about the fifteen Winter Olympic sports in which the athletes are competing. Usually when I show a PowerPoint to the class, I include some French sentences with new words highlighted that I translate into English in parenthesis to facilitate comprehension. This time when I finished going through my PowerPoint, one of my students raised his hand and told me that he already knew ALL the expressions I had translated on the PowerPoint from other activities we had done in class together. Then I asked the rest of the students to raise their hands if they also knew those expressions and almost every hand was raised. This means that my students have been acquiring language that I didn’t even realize they were acquiring!

I am looking forward to seeing what kind of progress students will make as the school year goes on. And I hope you are enjoying your January Blossom as much as I am enjoying mine. And if you don’t see signs of it yet, maybe your blossom will take place later in the year. But thanks to the power of compelling, comprehensible input I can guarantee that you too will have one of those moments where you will ask yourself “How did they know that?” when your students know the meaning of a word you haven’t targeted explicitly or will marvel at student output who produces something that you think is above and beyond their abilities. When that moment comes, enjoy it and be proud!